I used to love New Year’s Day. Every college football fan did. That was the day, the only day, when you could watch football morning, afternoon and night.
And back before the BCS, the biggest bowl games were almost always on New Year’s Day. Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Cotton (until 1994, the Cotton was a major bowl). All on New Year’s. What a day.
But what made the day great wasn’t just the amount of football, or even the quality. It was the importance of the games being played.
The Big Four always featured the champions of particular conferences: Rose (PAC 10 and Big 10), Orange (Big 8), Sugar (SEC) and Cotton (SWC). So bragging rights were wrapped up in the bowl game and not just the ranking, and the bowl itself mattered. When Keith Jackson declared the Rose Bowl was “the granddaddy of 'em all,” that meant something.
And teams played all season for the sake of the bowl game. I grew up in Colorado, a Big 8 (now Big 12) state, so for me the whole season was a march toward the Orange Bowl. Okay, for CU it was usually a march away from the Orange Bowl, but we all knew what the goal was. Beat Nebraska, beat Oklahoma, go to the Orange Bowl. That’s what it was all about.
Sure, winning the national title along the way was a goal too, a big one. But when it happened it was the cherry on top. The Orange Bowl was the ice cream and hot fudge. That’s why fans at games between contenders would throw oranges onto the field when their team made a big play. People would bring literally bags of oranges to games. They weren’t hoping for a BCS bid, they were hoping for a game that meant something in itself.
It was that way for teams in the other major conferences, too. Win the PAC 10, face Hayes’s Buckeyes or Schembechler’s Wolverines in Pasadena. Win the SEC, head to New Orleans. SWC? Pack for Dallas. There weren’t many empty seats at these games. These were all championship games in their own way, which made them all fun to watch.
A great example is 1979. That was the year Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide famously upset Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions by a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. The game featured No. 1 vs. No. 2 (a rarity in those days), so everyone knew that the winner would be crowned national champ.
But the other bowls were not rendered meaningless. That year the Orange Bowl brought in both Nebraska and Oklahoma. Oklahoma avenged its regular-season loss to Nebraska, 31-24, in a game that people watched and cared about even though it wasn’t for the national championship. They cared because it was OU/Nebraska, and because it was the Orange Bowl.
Even more so the Rose Bowl. USC won over arch-rival Michigan by a touchdown, aided by one of the all-time officiating blunders. A Charles White run was ruled a TD even though he’d already fumbled the ball.
And perhaps the best game of all was the Cotton Bowl, the famed chicken soup game, with Notre Dame’s flu-hampered Joe Montana engineering a comeback over Houston after eating a bowl of chicken soup at halftime. You can’t make this stuff up. And it all happened on one day, New Year’s Day, 1979.
Alas, no more. There are still lots of games on New Year’s Day, but mostly they’re as meaningless as a Madoff financial report. Only the Rose Bowl remains mostly what it was, but even that has lost something in the BCS madness. This year, USC pistol-whipped Penn State and proved that, although much has been lost by the creation of the BCS, very little has been gained.
Pre-BCS there were headaches over the frequent lack of a true, uncontested national champion, but there was also the thrill of meaningful bowl games and a single greatest day of the year. Now we still have the headaches, but New Year’s Day features just another parade of empty games that aren’t the BCS Championship.
A playoff system will come eventually, and that will be a vast improvement over the current debacle. Bowl games will become more meaningful as playoff games, and there is likely to be less controversy over a true national champion. But the arguments won’t disappear completely, and we’ll never gain back what’s been lost. New Year’s Day will never be the same.